When Big Muskies go Shallow

By: Spence Petros

It was one of those beautiful late October days you dream about. A classic “Indian summer” day. The fall turnover had occurred several weeks earlier, but now air temperatures had climbed into the mid-60’s, and sun-drenched skies were spreading a warm glow over chilled waters that had been in the high 40-degree range. It was a pleasure just being outdoors, especially when fearing this unseasonably warm spell we were encountering might be our last taste of warm weather in the north until next March.

My partner and I were fishing a favorite lake in northwestern Wisconsin. Earlier in the morning we boated a 40-inch musky that hit a trolled crankbait that skipped across the top of a deep hump that crested out at 16-feet. This was one of a few spots in the lake that wasn’t weed-related. We tried several more humps surrounded by deep water, a few isolated stretches of sharp-breaking shoreline, and some necked-down open water areas where muskies tended to suspend. Since our only musky came deep, it was logical to keep trying areas that offered these fall fish the closeness and security of deeper water…at least until proven otherwise. But all the deep-water related areas drew a blank.

The next step was to go to the deep weed edges, keying on weedlines that had some “character”. We sought out and fished outstanding features such as points, turns, edges of flats, lower growing fringe weeds, thicker clumps in sparser areas,
scattered weeds surrounded by thicker vegetation, where harder bottom bordered weeds, while all the while trying to play the wind. After a half-day of intense efforts along the weedlines and over the tops of adjoining vegetation, all we had were a few follows from 30-36 inch muskies. I was puzzled. Where were those larger muskies? This wasn’t a big fish lake, but it held plenty of 18-25 pound muskies with an occasional brute, and they should be active.

Out of the clear blue I remembered a statement that legendary structure fisherman Buck Perry made numerous times. Perry would defiantly say that he always knew exactly where the fish would be on a strange lake as soon as he launched his boat. This would really get the anglers attention at seminars, as you could see them tense up and move up on their seats. They couldn’t wait to hear the magic formula for success. After a few teasing minutes Perry would exclaim “the fish will always be in the shallows, the deep, or somewhere in-between”. A bunch of laughs would usually follow, but few anglers would really grasp the importance of that profound statement. But think about what he actually meant. Do you always check the shallows, the deep and somewhere in between to locate muskies? Too many anglers assume where the muskies should be, and when they don’t catch any, “the fish must not be biting”.

I learned this lesson the hard way a number of years ago while fishing a musky tournament with my old friend Al Lindner. Al and I were on fish big time during the practice days, so well in fact that a number of teams were so psyched that they all but conceded the tournament to us. But during the two-day August event the patterns shifted. We did OK, coming in 5th or 6th place, but the hot bite was in very shallow water, with bucktails around the piers being the ticket. We had our best action along the deep weed edges, where we jumped and ripped silver Reapers on jig heads into wind-blown inside turns. But we never went in tighter than over the weed tops. This ended up being one of the best lessons I’ve ever learned. When the fishing gets tough and logic isn’t paying off, it’s time to check the shallows. And I don’t care if it’s the middle of the day during the heat of the summer.

Back to the Shallows

The thin water was the only place I didn’t check on our Indian summer day. You’d think that if smaller muskies were showing along the deep weed edges, the bigger fish would be deeper. But that was logical, and logical wasn’t paying off.

My partner and I decided to try way up in the shallower water, a move that was usually not part of the normal thought process in late October. The plan was to make a controlled drift along the distinct inside weed edges, especially those that the wind was blowing into. Ideally, we hoped to find some areas of harder bottom (gravel-rubble-etc.) between the shore and the weedline. Any adjacent cover in the area, which was mostly docks, would also be fished.

The first area to be tried would be a gentle cupped shoreline along the northeast side of the lake that was being hit by moderate southwest winds. We set up our drift and started fishing the 3 1/2 to 5-foot depths that paralleled the 4-foot deep inside weedline. I tossed a gliding type jerkbait, while my partner opted for a bucktail. Within minutes of starting our drift I had a 20-pounder blast my jerkbait. It was quickly boated and released. An aggressive follow. Another strike. More fish. Constant action. We had hit the jackpot! And all the muskies were in that highly sought after 18-25 pond range.

Several excellent anglers I knew were fishing this lake and a nearby “sister” lake during this same warm trend. While we experienced excellent action on bigger muskies for two days, they didn’t see a fish over 20-pounds. They also didn’t check the shallow water.

The Theory

During a discussion I had with several fisheries biologists a few years ago they explained to me how game fish could get up to 5-6 degrees warmer than the water that surrounded them. Before you start thinking that this was impossible, that fish can only be as warm as the water around them, think how hot the surface of a dark car could get if it sat in direct, blazing sun all day. I bet that if the temperatures were in the 90’s and a breeze wasn’t hitting the vehicle, you’d be able to fry an egg on it.

We all know that dark absorbs heat, and all game fish have darker backs. Now think about the size of a muskies back and how they often suspend just under the surface, and you can see how an unseasonably warm, sunny day can affect their positioning. They certainly can be moving shallower to take advantage of the warmer shallower water and to soak up the radiant energy from the sun’s rays, but I also think there is some type of forage opportunity that’s going on that’s triggered by the warm sun.

When the muskies are shallow on these warm trends, they are usually active with hard strikes and aggressive follows being normal. These predators are after something especially during the warm mid-day and afternoon hours.

During sunny, warm trends in mid to late fall when the air temperatures get considerably warmer than the water temperatures, bigger muskies will often swap positions on structural elements with smaller muskies. While you’re out pounding the deeper edges of cover and structure and seeing nothing, or just smaller muskies, the big ones are usually shallower than the drop-off or deep weedline that separates the flats from the deeper water. How big is big? We’ve caught them close to 40-pounds in the thin water, and I’m sure bigger muskies are available.

Lake Types

I certainly haven’t been on all types of musky waters during this late fall warm trend, but I do know on natural lakes that have substantial weed growth, the fish heavily move up on the flats and use the area along the inside edge of the weeds. The deeper the edge the better, and the clearer the water the more apt you are to see the hottest bite occurring during late afternoon hours.

A problem may occur on clear water lakes that lack fertility and cover. If the adjacent flats are sandy with few scattered rocks and little or no weeds, this movement may not occur. A quick way to check for fish under these conditions would be to run shallow-running crankbaits behind boards, if trolling is legal. You can also cruise the flats to see if any muskies are up, and if so, go back under lower light conditions.

On my annual fall trip to Lake of the Woods a few years ago, the week started with a bang. I had just set out my line with a crankbait , went about 75-yards and my rod started to buck. After a brief slugfest, my partner Bill Davis, expertly scooped the fat 49-incher into our magnum-size net. It was a very chunky fish that weighted 33-34 pounds. That took the pressure off real quick, as you always like to get at least one good musky on a trip.

For those unfamiliar with L.O.T.W., if it’s not the best musky waters in the world it’s real close, and there is no better time to fish it than October. I favor the northwest angle, headquartering out of Sandy’s Blackhawk Island Lodge.

During that fall trip we had multiple catches of muskies every day. But during the end of the week it began to get warm and sunny. We had our worst day, catching only one 33-34 inch fish, and it was the only strike we had. Although this is primarily a trolling bite, we tried casting to a couple wind-swept points to see if the fish moved up, and raised one about 45 inches.

On our last day we hit some spots that previously turned out some fish, struck out and decided to try some new areas. It was the second warm day in a row and I kept thinking about how those muskies might be moving shallower like they had in some Wisconsin lakes in the past. Up until our last day, the muskies we had previously caught all came out of 8-12 feet of water. Our trolling runs usually positioned lures just inside the drop-off, right on the drop-off, and slightly down the edge.

Running too close to the shore on the root-beer colored waters in this end of the lake can prove hazardous to your motor, and I already had glided up on several rocky fingers during the week. But I had to get up on the flats, even though they were short and studded with irregular boulders. What if those big ones moved shallow; we did have perfect conditions with the air temperature at least 60-degrees, and the water temperature running 44-47 degrees on my sonar unit. My solution to running aground was to troll and control the boat while standing up. This higher positioning would allow me to see dark spots in the water, and to be able to quickly swing out to avoid hitting them(at least most of them). I had a plan and not too much time to try it out as my partner HAD to be home the following day.

I hooked a good-size musky, felt like at least 25-30 pounds, but it got off after a few seconds. This was the only fish we missed on our trip while using no stretch braided lines and sharp hooks. The next fish came shallow, a 20-pounder…then a 25-pounder. A 31 pounder soon followed, while my partner begged “we’ve got to get going”. As I pleaded my case for not leaving a hot bite and kept trolling, my rod suddenly bowed and I could feel heavy weight and wide-sweeping head shakes. I had a big one! As I eased the big fish closer to the boat I could see she was lightly hooked. Any thrashing and it would get off. I told Bill he would probably get one try to get this hawg into the net-and don’t blow it! After letting it swim against light pressure away from the boat for a couple minutes, we decided to try to sneak her into the net. Closer she came, one scoop with the oversize net and she was bagged, just as the lure flew out of her mouth. The 50 plus incher didn’t quite make 40-pounds, but it was close enough to make me happy.

The bad news was I had to go. The good news was we had a run of great action, and experienced a shallow late fall movement that was similar to what we had encountered on several natural weedy lakes in Wisconsin.

Spence Petros teaches fishing several multi-species fishing classes in the Chicago area starting in early March. Visit his web-site www.spencepetros.com for more info. <

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